London: Printed for G. Robinson, and J. Bew, in Pater-Noster-Row, 1776. Two twelvemo volumes, measuring 6.5 x 4 inches: xv, , 230; , 252. Contemporary half-calf, spines ruled and numbered in gilt, red morocco spine labels, pale blue marbled boards with vellum corners. Early book labels of Thomas Hammond Foxcroft to pastedowns, Foxcroft’s signature to both titles, additional early ink signatures to half-titles. Light shelfwear to bindings, final three leaves of Volume II with short scored cuts (no loss).
First edition of this epistolary novel, published two years after the posthumous appearance of Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman. In that controversial bestseller, Chesterfield advises his son to cultivate an open, inviting manner while steadily advancing his own interests: “take great care that the first impressions you give of yourself may be not only favorable, but pleasing, engaging, nay, seducing.” Samuel Johnson remarked that Chesterfield’s letters “teach the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master.” Philip Sedley, the apt young hero of Pupil of Pleasure, takes “the divine Letters” as his gospel, moving to the spa town of Buxton to practice his pleasing, engaging, and seducing: “what our Garrick is to Shakespeare, I am resolved to be to Chesterfield – the living comment upon the dead text.” But what begins as a comic novel, featuring a naïve clergyman and his easily dazzled young wife, turns into a much darker cautionary tale, as Sedley sinks into real brutality and destroys multiple lives in his pursuit of pleasure. In justice to Chesterfield, one witness to Sedley’s fall observes that he “purposely pillaged the volume for the pernicious, and rejected the instructive.” Former clergyman Samuel Jackson Pratt (1749-1814), who wrote and acted under the pseudonym Courtney Melmoth, himself faced lifelong skepticism regarding his dubious marriage, finances, and morals. The frustrated fantasy of disarming his critics and triumphing over them animates Sedley’s character. OCLC locates ten holdings of this first edition worldwide, six in the United States: Harvard, Huntington, Newberry, Penn, Princeton, and Yale. A very good copy of a fascinating fictional critique.